As we mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, rhetoric around the “success” of the so-called surge continues. Presidential hopefuls, along with members of the Bush administration, continue to tout “progress,” citing fewer U.S. casualties and moves amongst Iraqi groups towards “reconciliation.” While indeed, there has been a reduction in violence, it is lost in the headlines that thousands of Iraqis still are losing their lives each month in the conflict. But even worse, the “success” of the surge has the potential to bring violence to all time highs.
In his final State of the Union address in January, George W. Bush proudly held up the newly formed “Awakening Groups,” known locally in Iraq as the Sahwa, as examples of both Iraqi cooperation and independence. Members of these groups now total nearly 80,000, and are paid $300 of U.S. taxpayer money a month to not attack occupation forces. These groups are referred to as “Concerned Local Citizens” by the military, as though they are comprised of concerned fathers and uncles who suddenly became keen to collaborate with members of a foreign occupation force which has eviscerated their country.
In reality, most of the Sahwa are resistance fighters who are taking the money, arms, and ammunition, whilst biding their time to build their forces to move, once again, against the occupation forces which now support them, in addition to planning to move against the Shia dominated government. Furthermore, it is widely known in Iraq that many of the Sahwa are al-Qaeda members, the irony of which is not lost to Iraqis, who heard the U.S. propaganda as to the reasons the Sahwa were formed: to drive al-Qaeda from Iraq and to promote security so as to enable political reconciliation within the government in Baghdad by providing the space for this to occur.
Illustrating the counter-productive nature of Bush’s plan, Iraq’s puppet government, led by U.S.-installed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is having nothing to do with the Sahwa. When the U.S. military began to organize the Sahwa by buying off prominent Tribal Sheikhs across Iraq’s al-Anbar province, Maliki made it clear that none of the Sahwa would ever be granted positions within the government security apparatus.
And why should he feel differently? With Shia mlitiamen and death squad members he supports comprising the brunt of the Iraqi military and police, why would Maliki choose to grant legitimacy to the very groups who wish to gain a counter-balance of power in the Baghdad government?
Despite the periodic bickering and blaming from the Bush administration aimed at Maliki and his government, the Prime Minister remains in power for the sole reason that he and his cronies enjoy the backing of the occupation forces. After all, this is an “Iraqi” government that is located within the Green Zone. It is an “Iraqi” government that would not last five minutes without that kind of protection, as polls in Iraq indicate that it enjoys less than one percent support from the Iraqi population.
Arming (and splitting) Shia and Sunni
“I can’t think of a more classic example of divide and rule,” Phil Aliff, a then active duty U.S. soldier with the 10th Mountain Division told me at Fort Drum last October. He served nearly one year in Iraq from August 2005 to July 2006, in the areas of Abu Ghraib City and Fallujah, both west of Baghdad. Aliff was disgusted in the U.S. policy of, as he described it, “Arming the Sunni while politically supporting the Shia … how is that promoting reconciliation?”
According to the U.S. military, 82 percent of the Sahwa are Sunnis. Now the Sahwa, as my Iraqi colleague Ahmed Ali and I have been reporting for Inter Press Service, are openly challenging the government in Baghdad. In Baquba, the capital city of Diyala province, they are in the process of forcing the resignation of the Shia police chief of the province, Gen. Ghanim al-Qureyshi. A local Sahwa member told Ali in Baquba recently that their demands also include “the nomination of four Sunni assistants to be available as the new police chief, hiring 5,000 members of the Sahwa to serve as government security personnel, and government police no longer to be allowed into certain predominantly Sunni districts in an effort to eliminate the sectarian conduct of the police.”
So much for reconciliation. The Sahwa albeit wrought with its own infighting, corruption, and power struggles, now form an effective counterweight to the Iraqi government and are beginning to demand posts in various ministries in Baghdad, as well as power within government security forces.
General Mahdi Subeih, the commander of the order preservation forces in the interior ministry in Baghdad, announced to the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper in the U.K. on March 3: “The growth in the security role of the members of the Awakening Councils made them a third security force in the country alongside the army and the police.” He went on to state, “The councils are trying to exploit their successes in order to acquire political gains as their leaders are demanding the formation of a ministry dedicated to running the affairs of the councils.”
Subeih claimed, “The rebellion by some of the members of the Awakening Councils and the confrontations that erupted between them and the security forces reveal the depth of the chasm between the two sides.”
Thus, the U.S.-backed predominantly Sunni Sahwa is now both large and powerful enough to make demands of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, and hopes of reconciliation have never been so distant as the U.S.-backed elements of the Sunni and Shia power structure have never been as divided.
The U.S. military continues to train hundreds of thousands of members of the Iraqi Army/Police/Security forces. These forces, the majority of which are members of various militias or criminal gangs whose loyalty lies elsewhere, remain largely unable or unwilling to operate effectively. Nevertheless, there numbers are in the hundreds of thousands now, tens of billions of dollars have been spent, and the result is the U.S. backing of both sides of a growing conflict.
A Colonial Strategy
Divide and rule is not new to the United States, nor is it new as imperial strategy. Even before the U.S. existed, colonial strategy was keen to it. In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn quotes Gary Nash, who writes of the period in the 1750’s when native American’s and blacks greatly outnumbered white Europeans, “Indian uprisings that punctuated the colonial period and a succession of slave uprisings and insurrectionary plots that were nipped in the bud kept South Carolinians sickeningly aware that only through the greatest vigilance and through policies designed to keep their enemies divided could they hope to remain in control of the situation.”
Zinn writes, “The white rulers of the Carolinas seemed to be conscious of the need for a policy, as one of them put it, ‘to make Indians & Negros a checque upon each other lest by their Vastly Superior Numbers we should be crushed by one or the other.’ And so laws were passed prohibiting free blacks from traveling in Indian country. Treaties with Indian tribes contained clauses requiring the return of fugitive slaves. Governor Lyttletown of South Carolina wrote in 1738: ‘It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them [Indians] to Negroes.'”
And not just between “Indians and Negros,” but also strife between poor whites and blacks was fomented during the 1700’s so the powerful elites could remain in control of the colonies. Zinn adds, “It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters.”
Spring 2004 was perhaps the closest time in the occupation a unified Sunni-Shia front of resistance to the occupation existed. While the U.S. military assaulted the city of Fallujah in April of that year, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was carrying out his first intifada against the occupiers across much of Baghdad and southern Iraq. I witnessed Shia and Sunni demonstrating together against the occupation in the Khadamiya and Adhamiya neighborhoods of Baghdad. When I was in Fallujah there were members of Sadrs’ militia, the Mehdi Army, as well. Later, during Sadr’s second intifada, Sunni mujahedin from Fallujah would cart weapons to Najaf to the Mehdi Army there.
Also during Spring 2004, the U.S. military had supply lines cut, and later admitted to losing control of swaths of Iraq it usually controlled. Thus, a new strategy was needed for the occupiers, because “only through the greatest vigilance and through policies designed to keep their enemies divided could they hope to remain in control of the situation.”
Nearly three years later, the fruits of this strategy are clear.
The Political Splits
Added insurance comes from internal divisions within parties and alliances within the U.S.-backed government. Recently, Iraq’s presidential council refused to ratify a provincial election bill passed by the Iraqi parliament, purportedly due to the refusal of Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi (a member of the Supreme Islamic Council) to sign the bill. The move angered several political groups, particularly the Sadr movement and the Dawa Party, which has soured the “three point deal” agreed upon by the main political coalitions of the parliament, which would have entailed three main laws at once: the provincial elections bill, the general pardon bill, and the federal budget.
On March 7 al-Hayat newspaper reported, “The refusal by the Iraqi presidential council to ratify the provincial election bill opened the door for the emergence of new political disagreements between the various parliamentary coalitions, especially in the ranks of the Shia dominated ‘United Iraqi Alliance.'” Analysts are predicting new splits between the four major parties that comprise the UIA, the Supreme Islamic Council, the al-Sadar movement, the Fadhila party, and the Dawa party. al-Hayat noted, “The al-Sadr movement expected that the results of the elections for the provincial councils in the provinces of southern Iraq, which are supposed to be held before the end of this year, will lead to the loss of the Supreme Islamic Council of more than half the seats it now possesses. The Fadhila party also expected that the elections might shift the balances of power in central and southern Iraq…”
Some political observers considered that the presidential council’s decision, which forced the bill to be returned to the parliament, caused a disturbance in some of the political agreements between the various political coalitions. Abdul-Karim al-Salami, one of the leaders of the al-Sadr movement, told al-Hayat: “the al-Sadr movement enjoys wide popularity in the provinces of the south” and that ratifying the provincial election bill and holding the elections on schedule would lead to the SIC “losing control” of the southern provinces…”
In the Kurdish controlled north the situation is no different. The U.S. simultaneously supports both Kurdish warlords, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, as well as Marzoud Barzani, in their continuing struggle for power against one another.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has relied heavily on the Kurds from the beginning, even using Kurdish Pershmerga militiamen to augment U.S. forces in that region during the invasion. Yet, when Turkey decided to begin launching air strikes, artillery barrages and ground incursions into Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, the U.S. supplied the Turkish military with coordinates of Kurdish rebel groups, without, of course, notifying their puppets in Baghdad or Northern Iraq.
A “Success” Doomed to Fail the Iraqi People
The various U.S. military and political strategies in Iraq are the primary cause of the continuing sectarianism. The occupation forces and their methods are dividing Iraqi groups, and rather than promoting reconciliation, are encouraging increases in violence, power struggles, and strife. Thus, the military strategy is actually making the political process more difficult by failing to provide the actors the space needed for any progression towards reconciliation. The ultimate (and tragic) irony, is that this strategy also makes the possibility for a much larger civil war far more likely.
Perhaps this is the “success” and “progress” Bush and others refer to when they reference the so-called surge.